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Column

In these dark times, a murderer shows us the way

Here on Devil's Island, the novelty of extended home vacation has long since worn off, replaced by the daily monotony of a spring cleaning marathon that the warden tells me is likely to extend well into summer.

We do get outdoor recreation breaks, although Boss Sara mostly limits them to lawn mowing, weeding and dog walking within the quarantine zone. Once a day we inmates gather 'round the television to watch a rerun of "Jeopardy," followed by an hour of news from the Ministry of Truth on how we are holding our own against Eastasia, er, I mean the coronavirus. At 11 p.m. it's lights out. Then at 7 a.m. (sometimes later), it starts all over again.

After nine weeks of this new reality, it's little wonder I'm getting depressed.

I take little comfort from the victory pronouncements of the president, and even less from the pandemic pontifications of the governor. Dr. Fauci's carefully sugarcoated forewarning of the coming fall flu season scares the crap out out of me.

No, in these dark times, where all that stands between you and certain death is a crummy cloth mask, a half-empty bottle of hand disinfectant and voluntary self-imprisonment, there's only one man you can trust. And that man is ... Robert Franklin Stroud.

I'm sure you've heard of him. Suspected pimp, convicted killer, later sentenced to life for killing a prison guard. Spent six years in solitary confinement in Leavenworth. Later transferred to Alcatraz. Became a self-taught expert in ornithology.

Most people remember him as the "Birdman of Alcatraz." He found a fallen nest of baby sparrows in the yard. Raising them in his cell kept him from going stir crazy.

We're following a similar strategy (except for the pimping and killing part, of course) by proactively feeding wildbirds at our own prison. I've been interested in birdfeeding since at least 10 years BC (Before Coronavirus), though most of my past efforts went like this: 1. Put feeder out in spring. 2. Fill with seed. 3. Forget to fill again until fall. 4. Wonder why we never get any birds. 5. Put feeder back in shed.

But now, thanks to the luxury of sheltering in place, we've instituted an aggressive feeding schedule. It goes something like this: each morning Sara's quarantine-safe cousin Jimmy comes over and fills all the feeders, puts out peanuts for the squirrels and throws out bread, stale doughnuts and/or tortilla crumbs all over the patio. Then we all sit on the porch for the next two hours, drink coffee and watch the show.

Maybe we used to get a lot of birds years ago, but I don't really know because I never had the time or inclination to watch for more than a few minutes. I can remember a lot of sparrows, starlings and the occasional cardinal. One year I put in a thistle feeder for goldfinches. Never saw any goldfinches, but for the next decade we had thistle all over the yard.

This year everything changed. We've seen more than two dozen species so far, including four types of sparrows, flocks of starlings (they're like winged rats) and blackbirds (they have black beaks, starlings have yellow), red-winged blackbirds, purple house finches, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red-breasted woodpeckers, red-headed woodpeckers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, mourning doves, northern flickers, red-tailed hawks (!) nuthatches and chickadees, along with some incredibly colorful diners: electric orange Baltimore and orchard orioles, stunning yellow goldfinches, cardinals, blue jays and our latest visitors, electric blue indigo buntings.

It's amazing how wildlife can lift your spirits. Like Stroud, I've discovered it's hard to be depressed when you're watching the birds.

• Bill Wimbiscus is doing 14 days quarantine to life in Joliet.

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